Imagine you’re at the gym. The attractive, toned woman in front of you is doing squats. Instead of ogling her bum as it’s raised and lowered – to get some sort of creepy sexual gratification from watching a stranger who has neither invited nor consented to this – you keep your eyes on the floor. Eventually, you lie back on the weight machine you’re sitting on. You’re a hero, apparently. A “kind sir”.
OK, I’m being a little facetious. But TikTok user Libby Christensen really did post a video showing a man doing the above while she was working out, and his behaviour was, it seems, worthy of a shout out for – I guess – not being an entitled, disrespectful a***hole.
No shade at all to Christensen for sharing the content in question. She’s a regular gym goer and has probably had plenty of experience of men staring, making comments, offering unsolicited advice, invading her space and generally making her feel uncomfortable. When a man chooses not to treat you with the sort of humdrum, casual disrespect that women are so used to, it does feel like a big deal.
It almost becomes an “aww” moment, like when you see a video of a puppy splashing joyfully in a paddling pool or a cat and its owner wearing matching socks, decorated with slices of pizza. “Aww! That man did the bare minimum in terms of being a decent human being in an 18 second TikTok!” But men are not puppies in paddling pools or cats in pizza socks. They are adult humans and they shouldn’t need congratulating for just being civil.
I tend to avoid the gym like I would an open sewer, but I do get it. Sexist microaggressions are so quotidian and so constant that they almost fade to a background buzzing, like static. Sometimes you only realise that the buzzing noise is there at all when, for a moment, it stops.
Male entitlement in public spaces means that unacceptable behaviour like catcalling, following, unwanted touching, such as grabbing, pressing or rubbing, upskirting, flashing and intrusive staring of a sexual nature is all too commonplace. It can feel like you’re not welcome or safe in public places that everyone should be able to share.
When men aren’t doing these things on the tube or the bus or in the street, relief washes over me – and then I feel immediately angry that relief was my involuntary reaction, because what does that say about our society?
There are things, like crossing the road when walking behind someone at night or avoiding aggressive “manspreading” on public transport, that men can and should do to put women and people of other genders at ease. We should also be encouraging men to go further, to challenge the patriarchal systems that benefit them and harm people of marginalised genders.
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Men can and should use their privilege to challenge casual misogyny and regressive gender norms in conversations with other men and to call out abusive behaviour in friends and peers. They can put energy into campaigning for the equality of all genders and work on maintaining respectful, equal relationships, at work, in social situations and in the domestic sphere.
But the bar, generally, is still so low. I look forward to a time when we don’t need to celebrate men for behaving in ways that should be completely unremarkable. Let’s expect more and expect better from the men we come into contact with.
Hopefully, Christensen’s video will encourage more men – whether in the gym or outside of it – to behave respectfully towards people of all genders. However, judging by the TikTok comments telling her to focus on her “mind muscle connection” (vomit!) and criticising her “revealing” gym clothes (double vomit!), it seems that we still have a long, long way to go.
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